How You Look at It

Two moms are sitting at the park watching their four-year-old daughters play together. Mom One shakes her head and guiltily announces, “She’s certainly not the child I expected to have.” Mom Two smiles empathetically, watching the child in question, so Mom One continues, “I love her dearly, but it’s always conflict with her, everything’s a problem. She can be so … difficult.”

Mom Two watches the girl stand her ground in a face-off. “She certainly seems a spirited child. It must be a challenge for you.”

Overhearing this exchange, I have to chortle. Mom Two has hit the nail on the head. You can focus on the negative in a situation (problem, conflict, difficult) or you can focus on the positive (spirited, challenge). Guess which way is going to lead to more productive results?

You just know I’m not thinking about kids, though, right? I’m thinking about the design of Web pages.

The Web certainly isn’t the publishing offspring most designers were expecting to deal with. Centuries of designing for the printed page didn’t prepare them for the challenges of this new medium where printed-page principles sometimes work. And sometimes don’t.

Why? John Allsopp explains:

“Designers in the world of paper based publishing are used to control. A whole industry has evolved to ensure that what the designer wants is what the reader gets.”1

But the Web is a participatory, voluntary medium, and your visitors are in control not only of what they see, but even how they see it.

  • Folks can resize pages and adjust their screen resolutions.
  • They can choose how large or small text appears on their screens.
  • They can decide whether or not they want to display pictures.
  • They can choose whether or not they want to see color (some can even change the color palette).
  • They view your site on a variety of devices: PCs (and Windows appearance differs from Mac appearance), handhelds, WebTV – each of which presents a different visual format environment.
  • I always seem to be repeating myself, but this stuff is really that important: Your goal is to persuade by delivering content and information in a way that meets your visitors’ needs. The second you ignore those needs, your visitors are gone. Just like a child. You tell him “No,” and he tunes you out. But if you can find a way to tell him “Yes,” so both your needs and his are acknowledged, he’ll keep paying attention.

    The challenge is discovering how you can say “Yes.” Think you can design so one size fits all? Not if you are going to constrain the elements of your design. But if you add flexibility to your design equation, you will get much closer to “Yes.”

    In the mechanics of Web design, this becomes possible with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which allows designers to suggest how the Web page should appear.

  • With CSS, you don’t have to single out one font, which your user may or may not have. You can cover more bases by suggesting a number of fonts.
  • You don’t need to specify the actual point size of the fonts you use. Instead, you represent them as percentages of the basic text. Headers and subheadings can be proportionally larger; some text can be proportionally smaller. It will then appear on any device in the appropriate size relationships to the base text.
  • To make page layout adapt to a user’s settings, you can specify margins, indents and other layout features as percentages, or other relative values, of the width of the element which contains them. So when users change the size of their browser windows, the entire page layout adapts to fit.
  • When it comes to color, it is extremely important to make sure the persuasive objectives of your Web site can be conveyed in black and white, and that you do not rely on color alone to communicate your meaning. Consider that color can enhance your message, but should not be, in and of itself, the message.

    Khalil Gibran said of children,

    Your children are not your children. …
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. …
    You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.2

    Not bad parenting advice. It even offers a thoughtful parallel for online design. Your Web site is your child. And while you can shape it, you cannot control it. When it leaves you, it takes on an entirely new life shaped by all those who interact with it.

    You needn’t throw the baby out with the bath water – although there are some lessons you’ll want to avoid, there are lots of important things to learn from designing for print. Just refuse to think of the design of your Web site as a problem child. Think of it as a challenge. Because how you look at it influences what they see.

    And that, as we all know, is the key that gets the persuasive ball rolling.


    1 “Web Pages Aren’t Printed on Paper: Or how I gave up trying to ‘control’ web pages and discovered adaptability.” John Allsopp. March 2000.

    2 “On Children.” The Prophet. Khalil Gibran. 

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